Having written previews for both of the first two fixtures in the Group stage, I refrained from blogging any build-up to both fixtures with Borussia Monchengladbach. Mainly because of time and work constraints, but also because of my sense of trepidation about this double-header.
A fortnight ago, Gladbach came to Celtic Park and were very impressive. It was a European night unlike any other I had ever experienced inside Celtic Park. We started very flat, in stark contrast to the opening few minutes against Manchester City, and that meant that the atmosphere suffered from the cyclical effect of what was being played out on the park. Borussia’s defensive shape was very restrictive, it seemed we had so little space and equally as little idea about how to break it down. Along came two errors, which Gladbach pounced ruthlessly upon to take a 0-2 triumph back to Germany.
Without the injured Kolo Toure, who has been exceptional but for those mistakes in the first game, and Jozo Simunovic left at home as he is still deemed not ready to play Saturday-Tuesday at this level, you could’ve been forgiven for worrying about how last night might’ve gone. With a makeshift back four, further hindered by the absence of Kieran Tierney, if similar patterns had developed to those of the home game, Celtic would’ve been in for a long night.
However, those patterns never did develop. Having been second best in Glasgow, Celtic stepped up to match Borussia and in the end we were disappointed not to have grabbed the victory at the death. The opening 15 minutes were dominated by a flurry of corners for Monchengladbach, without any real danger threatening Craig Gordon’s goal. Just before the 20 minute-mark though, Gordon was called into action at the feet of Strobl to block the defender’s low effort. It was then Celtic, however, who almost went in front as a scuffed Gamboa cross made it’s way through to Scott Sinclair. Sinclair made himself half a yard and curled a wonderful effort that rooted Yann Sommer to the spot but stayed out off the inside of the post.
Gladbach did go in front 10 minutes later though, as Kramer released Hazard down the right and the Belgian’s cross picked out Lars Stindl who fired home past Craig Gordon. In retrospect, Sviatchenko should’ve continued tracking the run of Hazard rather than passing him onto Izaguirre as that would’ve given us the best chance of stopping the cross but when the ball did arrive the body shape of himself and Lustig in the central defensive positions didn’t help either. Blame can also be laid at the feet of James Forrest and Tom Rogic who could see the danger developing in front of them but did little in the way of prevention.
Into the second half, it was Gladbach who started better once again. Fabian Johnson scuffed a good chance wide of the target before Armstrong’s poor giveaway led to Andre Hahn’s shot crashing against the crossbar. The introduction of Patrick Roberts marked a change in the flow of the game and with it, Celtic began to carve out more dangerous openings. The winger pass put Dembele in and his low drive forced a good stop from Sommer in the Borussia goal. Just under ten minutes later Roberts found Dembele again, with a through ball and the Frenchman got the wrong side of Julian Korb who pulled him back to give Celtic a penalty and Korb a red card. Dembele stepped up to put the ghost of the Barcelona penalty behind him and levelled the game at 1-1. The guilt-edged chance fell to Callum McGregor with five minutes remaining but the sub pulled his shot wide after getting his angles all wrong, while Scott Sinclair waited in the centre of the goal for a tap-in. But that’s football. You’ve got to take those chances at this level. As we seen in the first game at Celtic Park, Gladbach were ruthless when presented with their chances and took the victory, had McGregor shown those qualities we would’ve took home the points last night.
Despite that, what we are seeing from this Celtic team is real, genuine improvement. There have been many nights away from home in the Champions League over the years where we have become resigned to getting rolled over. There has even been one in the opening game of this Group Stage. However, last night was one of those games where you could’ve been forgiven for expecting that. Not this time, though. We were brave on the ball and with a better touch and a little more composure in some of our openings in the final third who knows what the outcome may have been.
That’s enough of the buts, ifs and ands. The thing is undeniably clear is that Celtic are improving under Brendan Rodgers, markedly improving. Eilidh Barber asked the manager last night: “What is it you need to turn the two draws in this group stage into wins?” His answer was short and simple: “Time.” It’s been four months and Celtic have gone from looking uninspired, devoid of quality and cutting edge to looking like a team that is maybe two or three additions away from being the real deal. That is not just down to the summer additions that were made – although both Dembele and Sinclair have been brilliant since they arrived and were again last night – it’s about both coaching and management of a very high calibre. You get what you pay for, and Celtic could scarcely wish for a better manager to take the club forward than Brendan Rodgers right now.
This Champions League campaign is not over yet – although Celtic Park needs to give birth to one more miracle to keep it alive – but with that time that Brendan Rodgers spoke about last night and more investment in the right areas, the club are undoubtedly going in the right direction. We’re a joy to watch at times from an entertainment point of view and we’re progressively getting the results to back it up. The next few years are an exciting time to be following Celtic, saviour every moment.